Ridley Scott's pictures display the talents of one of the most visually creative directors in Hollywood. Movies like "Alien" and "Blade Runner" demonstrate his penchant for using established genres to reinterpret traditional material and move the forms in new and fascinating directions. His latest film, "The Counselor," with a script by Cormac McCarthy, suggests once again some unusual reworking of a familiar subject.
Played by Michael Fassbender, the counselor of the title is a criminal lawyer who, like a lot of people in and out of the movies, wants to make one big score, which in his locale — the Southwest — and our time, means shipping a load of cocaine across the Texas-Mexico border. He arranges it all through a wealthy dealer, his friend Reiner (Javier Bardem) and a middleman, Westray (Brad Pitt), both of whom warn him of the consequences if something goes wrong. And of course, something goes very wrong indeed.
The director complicates the relatively simple basic by frequently switching back and forth among a series of apparently unrelated scenes and sequences — workers loading oil drums on a decrepit truck in Mexico, the counselor making love to his fiancée (played by Penélope Cruz), Reiner and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) watching their pet leopards hunt jackrabbits in the Arizona desert, a motorcyclist speeding down dusty Southwestern roads. All those disparate subjects eventually come together, joined by a series of extraordinarily violent acts.
The director shows some unique versions of movie violence — a carefully planned decapitation, with a special moment when the killer shakes the victim's head out of his biker helmet, a body pickled in an oil drum, and an assassination on a London street in broad daylight that employs a horrible instrument Reiner describes earlier in the film. "The Counselor" also features one of the wildest and strangest sex scenes in the history of cinema, when a beautiful young woman makes love to a Mercedes (really). Whether the director or the scriptwriter created those unusual sequences remains unclear, though both share a history of imaginative interpretations of sex and violence.
Scott shoots in a number of locations — Texas, Arizona, Amsterdam, Chicago, London — which maintains the complication and the pace of an often puzzling series of events and constantly, without explanation, introduces new people to emphasize the increasing level of danger. Reiner's mansion provides the most lavish setting in the movie, a dazzling modern structure with large, airy rooms, glass walls, and an enormous swimming pool, where scores of well-dressed guests enjoy his hospitality, and a platoon of bodyguards keep him safe. It also becomes the center of the spider web that eventually traps every major character in the film.
The cast features so many big names that a few — Cruz, Pitt, Ruben Blades, even the German star Bruno Ganz — actually occupy rather small supporting roles. Michael Fassbender's passive performance creates something of a hole in the middle of the picture, which really needs a stronger presence than he can supply.
As the eccentric, mercurial Reiner, Javier Bardem provides probably the best acting in the film, creating a really compelling character, perhaps the one person who needs more screen time. The other strong presence is the stunningly beautiful Cameron Diaz, Reiner's mistress, who blithely orchestrates her own devious scheme and demonstrates a previously hidden depth and versatility.
Among all the intercutting and violence, the surprisingly talky script explores some strange territory, with dialogue that must be the work of Cormac McCarthy, some of it quite funny, much of it aspiring to some understated philosophizing. Both Reiner and Westray caution the counselor about the danger of his endeavor, but also indulge in some personal moralizing; Westray, in particular, suggests a kind of Heisenberg principle, in which the observer of a terrible crime becomes a participant in the act. Bruno Ganz, as a diamond dealer, expatiates eloquently on the mystical symbolism of the gems he sells.
All of the counselor's advisors — not only Reiner and Westray, but also in one brief scene, the Mexican chief of a drug cartel — speak to him about the choices he makes and the consequences of his actions. Enough Existentialism permeates the picture to thicken the air of a Parisian café, and enough despair to please any of its habitués.